October 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 5
Overrated Susan B. Anthony, whose profile appears on the dollar coin. Anthony, who originally believed that the subjugation of women in society was rooted in reactionary religious and economic as well as political institutions, compromised her convictions by allying the nineteenth-century suffragist movement with socially and religiously conservative female prohibitionists and pro-censorship activists, who wanted the vote for women in order to promote their ideas of morality. She was tactically right in her belief that her movement would be strengthened by an alliance with cultural conservatives, but time proved that the vote alone, achieved with ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, did not change the fundamentally inferior status of women. Basic change would come only with the second wave of feminism in the 1970s, which (in a throwback to the first wave of feminism, beginning in 1848) mounted a radical attack on the economic, religious, and educational as well as political underpinnings of discrimination against women.
Underrated Robert Green lngersoll, the pre-eminent champion of free thought and the most famous orator in late-nineteenth-century America. Known as “the Great Agnostic,” lngersoll traveled the length and breadth of the nation, speaking out on behalf of reason, science, Darwin’s theory of evolution, separation of church and state, and the nation’s often maligned heritage of Enlightenment rationalism.
In court, he challenged Comstock-era blasphemy laws, fighting on behalf of civil liberties before there was any organized civil liberties movement. Almost single-handed, he revived the reputation of Thomas Paine, the great polemicist of the American Revolution, denigrated throughout much of the nineteenth century on account of his opposition to orthodox religion. It is shameful that lngersoll is ignored in most standard American history texts today. In a eulogy for his friend Walt Whitman, he declared in 1892 that the poet “wrote a liturgy for mankind; he wrote a great and splendid psalm of life, and he gave to us the gospel of humanity—the greatest gospel that can be preached.” The same can, and should, be said of the Great Agnostic.